|One may be the loneliest number, but 17 is rapidly becoming one of the saddest. That's how many Northern Spotted Owls are left in Canada, and a recent decision by the federal environment minister all but guarantees that they will be the last of their kind in our country.
Logging has pushed the spotted owls into a few pockets of old-growth rainforest in southwestern British Columbia - and even these last vestiges of their homeland are on the chopping block. Earlier this year, environmental groups petitioned Rona Ambrose to intervene under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) and protect Canada's remaining owls. Last week, she declined.
Her response is more than merely absurd, it's disturbing to the extreme. First, it proves what many ecologists have feared all along that SARA is weak to the point of being almost useless. This piece of legislation was supposed to protect species at risk species like the Northern Spotted Owl. After all, the owl is more than merely at risk, it faces imminent demise and soon. Yet instead of requiring the federal government to step in and take action, the act allows Ms. Ambrose to condemn the species with the flick of a pen.
Since its inception, critics (including myself) have argued that SARA is fundamentally flawed because of this massive loophole. Rather than protection being based on a scientific assessment, it's based on political will. If the minister deems a species worthy of saving, she may act. However, if it is politically expedient to ignore a species in peril, then she may choose to do just that.
Ms. Ambrose's decision sets an ominous precedent. If 17 individual creatures in the entire country is considered plentiful and not in need of protection, then how low do populations need to drop before the federal government will act? A dozen? Six? One? The decision to not protect the spotted owl could effectively doom all endangered species in Canada.
And that leads to the second reason why this is about much more than just the owls. Species don't live in isolation. They are part of an ecosystem that contains myriad creatures. Canada's spotted owls are not dying because hunters are shooting them, or because of some mysterious disease. They're dying largely because logging is destroying the ecosystem that they depend on for food and shelter.
When that ecosystem is logged out, it threatens far more than just the spotted owl. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Biodiversity, for example, found that 22 other plants and animals also directly depend on the same old-growth forest habitat as spotted owls. Those animals, which include threatened species such as the tailed frog, the coastal marbled murrelet, northern goshawks and fishers, will likely go the way of the spotted owl if their shared habitat continues to be destroyed by logging.
So if the spotted owl disappears from Canada, at least 22 other species are at risk to disappear with it - and that's just the species we know about. Scientists have only catalogued and studied a fraction of the creatures found on the planet - especially in such diverse and life-rich places like temperate rainforests.
Is it too late for Canada's spotted owls? It certainly is if politics, not science, guides their recovery. And the same holds true for the rest of this country's threatened species. As written, our Species at Risk Act is failing to protect the very creatures it's designed to save and letting our politicians off the hook. Canadians deserve better. Our environment deserves better. And it's high time our endangered species legislation did what it's supposed to do.
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